Shema Yisrael Home

              Fish&Soup.jpg - 12464 Bytes Subscribe

   by Jacob Solomon

This Week's Parsha | Previous issues | Welcome - Please Read!


This piece contains Divrei Torah for each parasha.

Parashat Chukat contains the 'shirat ha-be-air' - the Song of the Well.

It is an extremely difficult passage to place in context, and for that matter to offer a simple translation. The Israelites were progressing place by place, steadily, towards their final destination in the Holy Land. And en route: 'from there (the River Arnon) to the well - the place of which G-d said to the Israelites: "Gather the people and I will give them water"' (21:16).

Rashi quoting the Midrash, puts the song in the context of a spectacular miracle. The enemy Amorite men of war tucked themselves snugly in a narrow valley, in ambush of the advancing Israelites. Before they could 'open fire' on them down below, the walls of the valley quaked, moved together, and crushed them. The enemy torrents of blood rushed downhill to the well. The Israelites grasped the miracle and salvation on their behalf and spontaneously burst into a song of gratitude: 'the Song of the Well'. (Readers might bear in mind that the geographic region is tectonically unstable.)

However, the context given by the text is 'Gather the people and I (G-d) will give them water'.

Did not the Israelites always have water in the desert, apart from on one or two specific occasions? What is the background to this particular well? What makes it the subject of the short song? (my translation):

'Come up, O well! Respond [to the song].
This is the well dug by princes, cut out by nobles, with the stick of he that gives the law.
It is a gift from the desert.
From that gift are watered dry valleys; indeed that gift [brings water whenever needed, whether] lowland or highland, even to the valley of the field of Moab' (21:17-20).

In explanation, the text states that the Israelites travelled from the far side of the Arnon River (21:13) 'to the well' (21:16). This is an important detail. That river (Wadi Mujib in Jordan) flows some 70 km. down to the eastern side of the Dead Sea, which has a gentle flow in summer and a torrent in the winter. So the Israelites moved from where there was water to the dry wilderness; to where they once more were in immediate need of fresh water to survive.

But they did not complain to Moses, as earlier on in the Parasha. Moses did what G-d told him: 'Gather the people and I will give them water' (21:16). He started to dig - 'cut out by nobles with the stick of he that gives the law' and hit the right spot (where natural underground water supplies were almost at the surface). And that was the 'gift from the desert' whether desert lowland or desert highland - namely springs of water very near the surface, identifiable by those close to G-d who knew exactly where to make an incision on the surface and the water would stream out… Water located and opened up by Moses - 'the lawgiver' himself.

So the weight of the song points to the Israelites' credit. They did not grumble when they went from water to no water. They waited patiently until the source of water was exposed by Moses - and in spontaneous song of gratitude, recognized the Hand of G-d in guiding Moses to the right spot, and gave thanks to Moses for supplying them with that life-preserving fluid.

Parashat Balak tells us of Balak King of Moab's employment of Balaam to curse Israel. He phrases his call to Balaam (some five hundred kilometers to the north), with:

The people who came out of Egypt are covering the surface of the land close to me… Now, come and curse them (the Israelites) for me, for they are too powerful for me… For I know whoever you bless shall be blessed and whoever you curse shall be cursed (22:5-6)

The Hebrew word used for curse is the standard one - ara.

But when G-d made a surprise visit to Balaam, Balaam recounted that message to Him in a more intensive form:

Balak the son of Zippor called on me with: 'Behold the people who are coming out of Egypt are covering the land. Now, go and execrate them for me. So perhaps I might manage to go to war with them, and drive them away' (23:11).

Balaam's word for the curse was not the standard one- ara, but the far more intensive one - kava. Rashi comments that this signifies Balaam's hatred for the Israelites: he added his own personal hatred to Balak's words, giving him an additional motivation for the job that was not financial.

R. Moshe Feinstein in his commentary on the Torah distinguishes these two versions in another way. Balak referred to the Israelites as a people who 'came out of Egypt' - all their experiences were safely in the past. They had been slaves, but by now they were free men - perhaps as a large Bedouin-type tribe making their unwelcome presence felt in the settled, city-states of Moab. Balaam, who was a prophet, recounted them to G-d in much more depth. He saw these people as 'coming out of Egypt' - as a people who were in the same mind-frame. They were not 'just another set of organized marauders' out for the plunder and the loot. They were very much in touch with their roots and origins. Despite their forty years in the desert they retained much of the same mentality that that was theirs in Egypt. With one notable exception. They were servants, but servants to G-d (Lev. 25:42). They were servants, yes - they continued to serve. But their service was not to the Egyptians, but the Creator Himself, Whose backing they had.

In other words, Balak had little idea who the Israelites were. He knew that it was futile to go to battle with them, but he did not understand the depth of their connection with the Creator. Balaam did - he 'got it'. He knew that his own previous experience of cursing (see 21:27 with Rashi's comment) was not up to those on G-d's payroll, so to speak. The curse had to be more intense, and he appeared to show little surprise that it did not work.

That is a key message of the Parasha - the Israelites, despite their many trials and tribulations (of which there was no shortage during the forty years in the desert, and for that matter today) remain connected to G-d. They still remain 'the people who are coming out of Egypt' in that they know what serving is - but the are 'My (G-d's) servants who I brought out Egypt' (Lev. 25:42), by walking 'in His ways'… (Deut. 28:9)

For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at and on the material on the Haftara at .

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


Shema Yisrael Home

This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.

For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael
Classes, send mail to

Jerusalem, Israel